Commentary on Bic Drive apartment plan: Where will they shop?

As a reporter, I have been covering the topic of Connecticut's affordable housing law, 8-30g, for 25 years. The law is well intentioned with the goal of increasing availability of affordable housing in a state where housing costs are expensive, to say the least.

As I started out in my career, I certainly could have benefited from affordable housing, so I can relate to the law's intent. However, the main effect across Connecticut has been to create a limited number of units that are often not especially affordable, while placing large-scale projects in places zoned by towns for other purposes.

The problem with the law is that it has become a weapon used by developers to create dense, projects in areas where they are not locally zoned. The law effectively strips local control from zoning commissions, and allows developers to spot zone.

I have seen applications in Milford where a developer proposes a project that is denser than allowed by the zoning regulations. Developers will comment that if the Planning and Zoning Board (P&Z) does not approve the project, then it will return with an even denser project under the 8-30g law.

The latest project in Milford is the Garden Homes Residential plan for Bic Drive at Naugatuck Avenue.

I applaud Garden Homes for their efforts to create genuinely affordable housing. By comparison, a prominent national developer, which commonly uses the law to build apartments, files applications for “affordable housing” and then markets those exact same apartments as “luxury apartments” with rents to match. The price quotes I have seen even on those “affordable” apartments don't sound too affordable to me.

My biggest concern with the Garden Home proposal is the density. Milford crafted its zoning regulations to create a certain look and feel to the city. As part of those regulations, houses are restricted to 35 feet, effectively, no more than three stories.

This proposal is calling for a four-story, 55-foot tall building, which will be built on top of a 19 to 27 foot high hill. The 7.68-acre parcel, if it was an R-12.5 zone (which is the adjacent residential zone) allowing eight single family homes per acre would have about 26 homes, but probably fewer due to the lot layouts. Assuming each home had three cars, that would be 72 cars, one fourth the traffic of this proposed development. If this development was 140 apartments, then it would be a much more reasonable size for the parcel.

Traffic Issues

While I may not be a traffic engineer, I have even more valuable credentials regarding this topic. I have been living in and driving around this area for the past 15 years.

The traffic study puts forth the position that almost all traffic will travel to and from the site via Bic Drive and I-95. This scenario is true to a certain degree, but there are other factors to consider.

People who live in these apartments will need to shop, particularly for groceries. A certain percentage will shop for groceries as they are out doing other things, but one needs to consider the location of the nearest grocery stores and how to reach them.

The nearest choices are the Stop & Shop at the Dock Shopping Center in Stratford, the Shop Rite at the Stratford Crossing Center, and the Stop & Shop on Route 1.

Since there is no I-95 southbound Exit 33 in Stratford, apartment dwellers will probably use Naugatuck Avenue to access Route 1. The Naugatuck Avenue light at Route 1 allows perhaps five cars to pass at each light cycle.

If someone is turning left, then even fewer cars can get through. Impatient people like me cut through the side streets and come out two blocks south of Naugatuck Avenue and return the same way. As has been written in other commentaries, traffic is often slow moving through Devon.

Heading to Stop & Shop in Milford, motorists will drive down Bic Drive to the Rt. 1 light that was not considered in detail a part of the original traffic study. Those who do so will have to deal with the Rt. 1 light at Schoolhouse Road.

Since there is only one lane there, typically eight cars can make it through before the light changes. At busy times, traffic is backed up to the railroad overpass. When the CVS was built, the intersection should have been widened to two lanes to allow simultaneous right and left turns.

The alternative access to Rt. 1 is to use West Avenue, which the traffic report does not envision happening, but, of course will oc-cur.

Another option is to shop at Aldi, so motorists would head along Naugatuck Avenue to Plains Road, the only other access to Route 1 from this area, short of getting on I-95.

As a neighbor commented, people headed to the Wilbur Cross Parkway would likely use West Rutland Avenue to Wheelers Farms Road. I go that way myself, when headed to Rt. 15 Northbound, since traffic conditions on the Milford Parkway are unknown and could result in a long backup, and the overlapping on ramp/off-ramp on I-95 is always a safety concern.

Other shopping destinations would certainly involve using I-95, including the Connecticut Post Mall, the entire Post Road strip east of the mall, Shop Rite on Cherry Street, and Trader Joe's in Orange. For all these destinations to the east, using Exit 36 instead of Exit 35 is a bit shorter and is the way GPS routes people.

One other consideration of locating a residential property adjoining a heavy industrial area is the steady stream of trucks that pass by this property. When heading southbound on Bic Drive, all vehicles have to cope with a short steep hill descending around a sharp curve to the light at Naugatuck Avenue.

Vehicles include FedEx tractor trailer trucks using the former Bic property, city vehicles headed to the sewer treatment plant, cement mixers from the Suzio York Hill concrete plant, heavily laden garbage trucks en route to the transfer station, and large trucks carrying dirt, wood chips, and related products from Grillo Services.

The lack of sidewalks in the area is a definite problem. It is difficult to walk safely due to the lack of sidewalks near the junc-tion of Bic Drive and Naugatuck Avenue, and requiring Garden Hill to install sidewalks only begins to address the issue.

Walking up the hill on Bic Drive is tough due to the lack of sightlines for cars. People who take the bus to work have to walk this way because the bus turns from Bic Drive onto Naugatuck Avenue and does not go up the hill.

I agree with the developer's position that even if they built sidewalks on their property, which they agreed to do when requested by the P&Z, the sidewalks don't connect to anything. What Milford needs is a comprehensive plan to actually build sidewalks where they don't exist, especially to make connections in areas that have partial sidewalks.

The recommendation from the Tree Commission that Garden Homes remove the invasive plant species from the property is an important one. Along the Naugatuck Avenue side of the property, Asiatic bittersweet vines encircle and hang down from trees. Over time these vines will kill and pull down the tree. It is simply a matter of time.

During Hurricane Irene, a tree across Naugatuck Avenue fell on the powerlines, causing the area to loose power for five days. While that tree did not have any vines on it, the incident showed the damage that a falling tree could cause.

In closing, I support the idea of affordable housing, but I believe local zoning commissions need the power to regulate such proposals so they are located in suitable areas and are not overly dense for the property.